We all want to read good books and avoid bad ones. But how do we know the difference? C. S. Lewis helps us here.
In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis proposes that what makes a book good or bad is the type of reading it invites. He begins by stating that he wants to define good literature as “that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading” and bad literature as “that which does the same for bad reading.” He is forced to conclude, however, that adding the word “compels” is only wishful thinking. Ultimately, “what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones.”
In other words, a good book is one that draws the reader in so that she reads it as a true reader. Lewis explains that there are some books we read and wonder with excitement, “Will the hero escape?” But there are other books we read (or perhaps even the same books, read with an extra level of depth), where we feel deeply, “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.”
It’s not that a good book pulls every reader into this type of reading. Remember that there are different types of readers in the world. Lewis insists that if even one person reads the book this way then we cannot dismiss it as a bad book. A bad book is a book that makes a good reading impossible.
And we have to keep in mind that this can be any type of book. Christians can become suspicious of the imagination, thinking that we have to be serious. We have to move beyond childish fantasies and grow up by thinking only of the real world. But Lewis won’t have any of that. While some things are “childish” in a bad sense, there are many traits in children that we ought to pursue:
“The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than losing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes.”
For C. S. Lewis, literature is a means of exploring and enjoying this world and the human experience. A good reader will open himself up to the books he reads—he will enter into them—and allow himself to be changed in all of the right ways. A good reader won’t assume that some types of books (Lewis also gives a defense of comedy) are worthless, but instead he will give any genre of literature a fair chance.
Some of my favorite sections from Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism come from his discussion of reading fiction, and his thoughts here warrant some extra attention. But for that, you’ll have to wait until Monday.